When H.P. Lovecraft was 27 years old he published one of his first stories in The Vagrant, in June of 1918. It was called The Beast in the Cave. The Vagrant was an amateur publication that later featured some of Lovecraft’s other early stories, including versions of Dagon and The Tomb. The man who produced The Vagrant had read some of Lovecraft’s earlier attempts at fiction, and being interested in supernatural literature, encouraged Lovecraft to continue writing.
The Beast in the Cave is a simple story, and it is tempting to read much more into it than may actually be present, given the more famous works that followed over the next two decades. Nevertheless, like Dagon and The Tomb, this early tale contains themes and motifs that are developed in later stories. In style it is identifiably Lovecraftian.
The narrator wanders off from his tour group and becomes lost in Mammoth Cave. His torch fails and in the deep darkness he hears the approach of some sort of predatory creature. He tries to identify the animal from the sounds that it makes, and in a moment of panic defends himself from imminent attack by hurling rocks in the direction of the creature’s approach. He is eventually rescued by the tour guide, and in the light of the guide’s torch he comes to an understanding of the true nature of “the beast.”
The narrator describes himself as a scholar, “indoctrinated…by a life of philosophical study.” He is impressed with his ability to remain calm and apply his powers of reason to the plight of being lost in a cave. Scholars are common characters in much of Lovecraft’s later fiction, although they face greater horrors and are barely able to maintain this philosophical façade.
Although most of the movement in the story is horizontal, through dim and darkening passages, the fact that the setting is in a cave, implies a descent. How many of Lovecraft’s stories have involved a scholar who climbs down some passage way or set of stairs? How many have involved a scholar making this journey alone?
In the cave he expresses ambivalence about organized religion. When he reflects on his likely death by starvation, he remarks: “If I must die…then was this terrible yet majestic cavern as welcome a sepulcher as that which any churchyard might afford…” This note of resignation can be heard in many of his stories.
Early in the story he makes reference to a “colony of consumptives” that previously lived in the cave to take advantage of health benefits of constant temperature, fresh air and quiet peacefulness. He speculates on “what unnatural influence a long sojourn in this immense and silent cavern would exert upon one as healthy and vigorous as I.” Evolution is in view here, and the notion that isolation and subterranean conditions produce monstrosity over time is later returned to in The Lurking Fear, The Rats in the Walls, and other stories.
Near the end of The Beast in the Cave, Lovecraft playfully doles out auditory and visual cues that lead to the final identification of the creature. As the guide’s torch illuminates by degrees its awful form, the narrator says, “The fear left, and wonder, awe, compassion, and reverence succeeded in its place…” Sadness and irony at the end of a Lovecraft story? In later stories, this will be replaced by disgust and unending anxiety about the future. What changed?